The Perfect Family Is an Idol

It is 10 o’clock at night, the kids are asleep, and my husband and I are in the midst of a massive fight that has somehow spilled out of our house and into the backyard. We’re yelling at each other, words born of anger, each of us too hurt and ashamed to back down. And like the majority of our worst fights, I don’t even remember what started it, I just remember how awful it felt.

My husband and I own a small business, and at the time we were working long hours, often late into the night, and we were having cash flow issues, which is a polite way of saying that we were out of cash. We also have little kids, so we were probably sleep deprived. Obviously, we’d had a bad day. None of this justifies our behavior, it just gives it context. We’re sinners with an anger problem.

And while I don’t remember what started our fight, I do remember what stopped it. We live next to an old apartment building, and our kindly, elderly, alcoholic African American neighbor Allen leaned out of his upstairs balcony and yelled, “Hey, are you okay?”

In a quiet voice my husband said, “No, we’re not.” And that was it. It was over. We went back inside, apologized, and went to sleep, albeit in different rooms for the night, and the next morning resolved to do better with God’s help. All this, because my neighbor, acted like a neighbor, in the biblical sense. He loved us when we weren’t deserving of it. He inserted himself into our mess. He was a Good Samaritan.

He didn’t call the police. He didn’t berate us. He just asked if we needed him to come down so that we would have someone else to talk to. And he didn’t act weird or judgmental when he saw us the next day. He simply said, “Are you okay,?” when we were plainly not, and that was enough. The love of neighbor in all its fullness is sometimes boiled down to asking, “What are you going through?”

The question restores some of our dignity, and reminds us that we’re not alone. God acts, in the Christian story, through other people, often people like my neighbor Allen. A veteran, who has served time and now works odd jobs as a handyman. Beautiful and imperfect, Allen, who was once Christ to me.

My husband and I have learned how to fight better and less. But, occasionally we still fight. But that day with Allen on the porch taught me that I’m not as alone as I sometimes like to think. It taught me that the world of my family, or my “domestic Church,” doesn’t end at my front or back door. It is not encapsulated by me, my husband and our two children. The American idea of family, the nuclear family, or the independent individual, is way too small.

When my husband is having a bad day now, when I’m mad as hell at something he’s said, and feel like taking all of his clothes and burning them in the front yard, I call my in-laws, who love us both, and live three blocks away. They’ve been married for fifty-two years. I say, “Hey, please call your son. He’s having a bad day.” And it helps. Every time.

This is not to say that my marriage is simply an act of bearing suffering patiently. On most days, my relationship with my husband is a source of joy. He is a blessing in my life, not just my supporter but my champion and best friend. We have built a life together that is better than anything I could have imagined. But much like my life of faith, my married life can sometimes be complicated and messy and hard, and I don’t want to pretend that it’s not.

The perfect family is an idol. We need to speak about this in our parishes. There is no such thing as a perfect husband, or a perfect wife. As Pope Francis says, “It’s just us sinners.” And my marriage thrives, not only because of the deep love that my husband and I have for one another, but also, and maybe primarily, because we live in the midst of a community of people that support it. Our relatives, our friends, our kids, our neighbors, our faith.

I tell this story of one of my lowest moments because so often I think what keeps people from encountering Jesus in the home, or being creative in imagining what they want their domestic Church to look like, is the idea that religious practices are the purview of the perfect, or the scrupulous—the kind of people who seem to need them the least, or at least, need them for different reasons. We sometimes think of faith in the home as an added bonus for people who already have their shit together. But Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners. This way of life, these practices, are not a cudgel, but a gift. And the “domestic Church” does not refer simply to discrete moments of prayer in the home, but to our entire lives outside of the Mass. “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.”

God’s love is unconditional, so we don’t just encounter it when we’re doing a great job. In fact, the full revelation of God’s love for us is made known in the Resurrection. That is, after we have become his murderers, after we have killed him, you and I. The Easter story is not a very “nice” story, but it is a true one.

So, we need to re-discover community, and we need to know that life lived in relationship is not about perfection but about faithfulness. As Pope Francis says, peace in the home is artisanal, “You work at it every day.” Anything worth doing is going to be hard. It’s going to take practice and require sacrifice, and involve failure, but we have to give it a shot. Mother Teresa tells us, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

By letting people like Allen, my friends, and my family into my marriage, and my life, as it really is, I’ve learned how to not only be in a better relationship with my husband, but how to be a better person. How to love more patiently and faithfully. How to pray for someone I’m furious with. How to better live and express what isn’t a contract between two consenting adults, but what is a sacrament, meant to participate in and be an expression of God’s love for us.

And I try not to go too hard on myself or the people I am in communion with, because I believe we can learn as much from our failures, as from our victories. My kids aren’t going to get two parents who have never had a fight, but maybe I can give them two parents who, when they do fight, even in front of them, reconcile in front of them too and ask them for forgiveness. God appears between beings and his name is Mercy.

And, if it isn’t already abundantly clear, I say this as someone who is not very good at community. My idea of a great day is being left alone in a room to write.

Fearing Community and Being Transformed by It

When I was 22 and engaged, my now husband told me that he was committed to the idea that his parents, who were poor and elderly and had health issues, would come with us, wherever we went. He even floated the idea of an intergenerational household, rejecting the way we outsource the care of our elders. But I was afraid. Afraid that I would be less happy, less successful, less free, if I had to take care of them. I thought that they would be a burden.

Little did I know that they would be the ones, again and again, taking care of me. Or that I would be seeking them out for conversation, when afternoons with the kids seemed long. We started a business in their basement. They watched my baby when I wrote my book The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life. My mother-in-law is now one of my closest friends. I have learned from her that love doesn’t grow in isolation or without suffering. It grows in proximity and, in my experience, in shared adversity. When I had my appendix out my father-in-law came to the hospital and prayed over me before they wheeled me to the operating room. When our basement was flooding, he stood in water up to his knees, and carried bucket after bucket up the stairs. Love changes you. The change is slow, but tangible.

In American culture freedom is about autonomy, literally being a law unto oneself. And it’s about privacy. I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t impact anybody else. How miserable to believe that your life affects no one? How patently untrue, when in fact, we are interconnected from the moment of conception.

There is an epidemic of loneliness in this country. 1 in 3 American adults identifies as chronically lonely up from 1 in 5 a decade ago. An overwhelming amount of literature has been written on the breakdown of community in the United States, from Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam to Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. We all know that young people are less connected than ever before to religion, extended family, a sense of place, or meaningful labor. And as our social ties have been weakened the suicide rate has increased. Suicides for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010.

Often, our culture overlooks the role that communal religious practice can play in public health and well-being. Communal religious practices boost immunity, and decreases blood pressure, they also increase “pro-social” behavior like volunteering and doing well in school. One Harvard study showed that going to church once a week, reduced mortality by 20-30% over a 15-year period.

To truly see each other, we need to waste time with one another. Why do we take it for granted that each member of a household should spend the majority of their waking hours in a separate building?

I am Christian because I believe that the Christian story is true, but I am also a Christian, because I get something out of it. I get live in communion, in relationship, with Christ and the saints. I get to be loved by Jesus, as I am, to lay down my burdens at his feet. This too is a form of community.

According to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, women who attend religious services at least once a week are 5 times less likely to commit suicide. And among the 7,000 devout Catholic women studied, who attended religious services more than once a week, there was not a single suicide over a twenty-year period.

Lisa Miller of Columbia University’s Teacher College has found that spiritually connected children and adolescents are 60% less likely to suffer from depression, 40% less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and 80% less likely to have unprotected sex. And yet she has had difficulty finding an audience for her research. At psychology conferences, people walked out during her presentations.

Our faith, properly understood, is about following Christ, but it is also a set of practices and a way of life, that can also provide buffers against loneliness, isolation, nihilism, hatred of the “other” and despair. Not in every case, of course, but in many cases. And yet these ancient practices are in danger of being lost. Only 16% of American Catholics under 40 regularly attend Mass. Only 40% of American children regularly pray before meals. Young Catholics whose parents attend Mass, talk to their children about their faith in the home, and live their beliefs in their daily lives. In other words, those who have a “domestic Church” are the most likely to practice their faith in adulthood, and experience these subsequent benefits.

In American culture, however, autonomy is sacred. “I can do whatever I want. I can believe whatever I want.” But any religious practice, any discipline, or sport, or craft, requires engaging with or being ruled by a reality independent of one’s self. Matthew Crawford writes, “The self comes into a view in a situation not of its own making.”

If you’re a marathoner, you can’t just show up for the race without training, or quit at the 3-mile mark, you have to discipline yourself, cultivate the virtue of self-denial, in order to push past what feels good, in order to do something that feels better, even when that which feels better, that which is ultimately more rewarding, can feel like suffocating. There was a point in each of my labors when I turned to my husband and said, “I can’t do this” and he said “You have to.”

My babies were going to be born, whether I felt like it in the moment, or not. I had to almost literally go to battle for them. And only in a situation of such firm limits, was I able to realize my own strength, or what I was capable of. Thomas Merton famously described his monastic cell as, “The four walls of my freedom.” We need to think about good limits, healthy limits, as joyful things, that allow for human flourishing. As Chesterton said, “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls. But they are the walls of a playground.”

We Catholics hold on to practices and people, and a way of life, that the world would just as soon throw away, or walk out on. And at the heart of this life should be domestic Churches, home churches, where we can worship something other than ourselves, and where the “terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” In fact, without these waystations or home churches a life of faith is no longer tenable. If there are no Catholic homes, pretty soon there won’t be any Catholics. We will have been assimilated.

Our lives must become places of communion: with our true selves, with one another, with God and the saints, and with our beloved dead.

My husband had a brother, named Patrick, who died as an infant. We have a framed picture of him on our shelf. And one day my five-year-old, pulled it down and asked to hear Patrick’s story. And after hearing he said, “We should pray for him.” So, we got down Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers and did. As St. John Chrysostom said, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and offer prayers for them.”

It is for reasons such as these—the need to provide an alternative to a culture of isolation and hopelessness—that we need to rediscover the domestic Church, what Pope Benedict XVI called, “the primary sphere of the Church’s life, especially because of its decisive role in the Christian education of children.” All of the popes since Vatican II have described the home as a church, or a school of love, a place for God’s people, his Body to learn: fidelity, hospitality, how to share, how to regulate emotions (still working on that one), how to pray, to forgive, to care for creation and contribute to the common good. It’s all connected. Pope John Paul II said, “The family, called together by word and sacrament as the Church of the home, is both teacher and mother, the same as the worldwide Church.”

We can’t count on our parishes to do all the work. They’re not set up for that. Never have been. Nor we can we count on our schools, or public figures. When the President of the United States who is not a Christian speaks of himself as a Christian, it is easy for our children and people disconnected from religion to become cynical or confused. We must keep the faith alive in our homes, trusting that we have been given the grace to do so by our baptism. Pope Francis tells us that the only thing required for evangelization is baptism. When the Catholic faith was expelled from Japan, when the last priests were martyred and driven from the country, the faith remained alive in secret for 200 years. Who did the work of baptism, catechesis and Christian burial for 200 years? Pope Francis tell us that it was the baptized. It was the “domestic Church.”

And this isn’t about spiritual pride or “saving” others. This is simply about trying to love the God who first loved me. In the process of writing my book The Catholic Catalogue, I discovered that the person I had evangelized, big surprise, was myself.

So how can we re-imagine community and communal life in the 21st century? What might the domestic Churches of the future look like? Let me share with you some of my own story, in the hope that it will allow you to reflect upon your own. 

Reimagining a Shared a Life

When I was married in my early 20s, I lived away from my extended family and liked it that way. I needed space and time to figure out who I was and what I wanted my life to look like. It’s OK, helpful even, to take some time and space to discern your path.

Still in those early years of my marriage and adult life, and even now, I often felt that my Catholic identity was at war with my American one. It was an uneasy alliance. Notre Dame had taught me that other people were a threat to my freedom and future success, except of course friendships of utility, the “Notre Dame family” and the words “networking” come to mind. Whereas in the Catholic tradition, I was taught to discover myself, in introspection and contemplation, yes, but also in relationship, with God and neighbor.

However, and this is crucial, I wasn’t without community in those years away from my extended family in Colorado. I went to St. Joseph’s parish here in South Bend, and I taught classics at Trinity, an ecumenical high school. I was blessed to have the formative experience of praying morning prayer every morning with all the women in the high school where I worked. I learned so much from praying the Psalms and hearing women of faith preach on the Gospels five days a week for years. I developed a deep friendship with a fellow teacher named Ruth Sanford: a funny, irreverent mother of eight, and grandmother of 15, who had taught every subject in the school. She told me things that were so prescient that I still think about them all the time. Things I couldn’t yet understand. For example, when I was disappointed that I had to keep working in order to pay our bills and couldn’t go back to graduate school she said, “Maybe it will be a gift for your writing.” Or when I worried about taking care of my in-laws someday and she told me, “God doesn’t give you the grace you need for tomorrow today. He gives you the grace for today. You get it one day a time.”

Ruth used to tell me that the difficult relationships in my life were “Opportunities to grow in holiness.” But she didn’t say it in some pious or dismissive way, she said it with laughter and resignation. Like a Southerner says, “Lord Have mercy!”

It was during this time when I was teaching high school that my husband decided to stop work on his dissertation and start a handmade furniture business. He would often come home after I was in bed, and leave before I woke up. He had to work long hours, seven days a week. And every penny we made when into machines and sand paper. Getting a business off the ground was all consuming, and he was seldom home. People would tell me, “Woodworking is a fine hobby, but no way to support a family.” And I would tell them that I had a job that paid our bills.

But then I had to quit my job to take care of our newborn who was sick and we were extra broke, and I was terribly lonely. I missed teaching. I rarely saw another adult, and the baby cried all the time. We were unhappy with our situation, and had to make a change, so we started dreaming, once again, about a work-live situation, and moving closer to family, and eventually found a house in my hometown, where we could have the furniture studio downstairs and our family and my work in the apartment above. The upstairs hadn’t been lived in for over thirty years and we would have to do all the work on it ourselves, but it was our chance, and so we took it.

We were trying to create a domestic Church, although we wouldn’t have used that language at the time. We had ideas that looked good on paper. We had studied Catholic Social Teaching on economics, Distributist writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. We knew what the Church taught about economics, that it should serve human relationships, not the other way around. Private property is a good, but we’re stewards, not owners, and maximizing one’s profits can never be the only goal.

As Chesterton writes in “Three Foes of the Family,” a passage worth quoting at length:

It cannot be too often repeated that what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism. No doubt it might have been Communism . . . But, so far as we are concerned, what has broken up households and encouraged divorces, and treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and Power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favor of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.

And yet the Catholic solution for Chesterton, is not to abandon business or industry, but to re-imagine it on a smaller and more human scale. He wrote, “Too much capitalism, does not mean too many capitalists, but too few.”

We were being swallowed up by the demands of contemporary existence, in danger of becoming another statistic. We wanted to own a business that wasn’t a part of the problem, and at the same time we wanted to put our family, faith and relationships at the center of our lives.

As is often the case, moving from abstract ideals to practice proved difficult. To give one tiny example, very few buildings are zoned in such a way that families can own a one-man shop and live above it. We battled government bureaucrats and regulations and almost got shut down a dozen times, and our life savings and then some was tied up in the endeavor. It was hard to be allowed to live a retro kind of life. And rather than living our ideals, we often felt like we were failing on every front. We wanted to be “leaven for good in the world,” but we were just a stressed-out mess with poor credit. In the end, we fought for it and figured it out, each battle, like renovating the unit above the shop to make it livable while taking care of a baby, forcing us to reaffirm our commitment to a different kind of life than the one we had grown up with.

Now, we share a life. Working from home has changed our relationship in dramatic ways. We can work long hours when we need to, and still be in each other’s daily life. I pick up my daughter from Mother’s Morning Out, and she eats her PBJ with her Daddy and me before taking her nap. My son is playing basketball in the backyard, and one of us can stop what we’re doing and watch him, or play, anytime we want. And his cousins who live in town are his closest friends.

We all got to know each other better. I was no longer the stay at home mom alone with a baby. And the more time we spent together, the easier it became for us to know how to just be in each other’s presence. Our understanding grew. Before, when we went to separate buildings for work all day, we would come home and tell each other about our days, but we didn’t truly understand what the other person was going through. What exactly their hopes and dreams and struggles and daily tedium looked like. I didn’t know what it took to build a table. My husband didn’t know what it took to direct a play. Now I can see him sweating to fix a broken machine all day, and sometimes remember to give him some space in the evening as a result. In the same way, he can hear if our daughter is having a tantrum and walk upstairs to ask if I need to take a break.

American homes have been reduced to places where we sleep and store our stuff. We don’t actually spend very much time there. The home can’t be a place where our faith is expressed and learned and taught unless it is first a place of charity and encounter.

Hospitality, which the home is meant to provide, is established in the Old Testament as a sacred duty (Deut 10:18-19). For Christians, to welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ. And sometimes the “stranger” is a member of your own household. (Dear child, must you slam every single door when it’s time to go to bed?) People say that you can love from a distance, and I think that’s true, but it’s harder, because love is a verb. It’s an action. In the Acts of the Apostles the question isn’t “What do you think? Or how do you feel?” It’s, how then shall we live?​

The world of my family, or my “domestic Church,” doesn’t end at my front or back door.

When we bless our homes on Epiphany we sprinkle each room with holy water, and pray that all who enter it will be treated with dignity and love. We pray that those who come into our homes might find, as the Magi did at the end of their journey, the true and ever-living Christ. We pray for these things, not to tell God what a great job we’re doing, but because we know of our weakness and need.

To truly see each other, we need to waste time with one another. Why do we take it for granted that each member of a household should spend the majority of their waking hours in a separate building? Historically speaking, this is new. In a subsistence economy families worked together, side by side. I think this is part of why American university students love to go abroad, they yearn to go to exotic places where people still live cheek to jowl, where there is still a sense of story that goes beyond shopping. In many developing countries, intergenerational living is still the norm. Ancient religious practices are still the norm. Hospitality to strangers is still the norm. Although, these too are threatened as we export our more expedient way of life.

Working and living in the same building, my husband and I talk more, and we share more of the work of caretaking. There’s a toddler wearing noise cancelling headphones wondering around the shop. We have friends over for beers on the back porch, while our kids play in the yard. All kinds of people come over from our trash man, to electricians and plumbers, to artists and priests. We have fourteen relatives within walking distance. Seven more up the road in Denver. It’s messy and beautiful and a balancing act. We have to learn how to give each other space but also how to share it, and to resolve conflicts more quickly because we’re going to see each other more frequently. I do campus ministry at Colorado College, the liberal arts school across the street, and my students come over for dinner. My kids know them, and they know what their parents do for work, because they’ve grown up working alongside us.

Of course, working from home isn’t a feasible, or maybe even an ideal, option for many people. But it is becoming more common. The number of Americans who work from home at least one day a week has risen 40% in the last decade. 1 in 5 Americans now work from home and that number is expected to rise by 63% in the next ten years. It has created a situation in my own life within which a domestic Church has been allowed to take root. To paraphrase Peter Maurin, we tried to create a new type of home, which was actually old, in which it was easier to be good.

Playfulness and Imagination

We have dangerously small imaginations when it comes to picturing what a wild and holy life can look like. There isn’t only one way. Everyone’s domestic Church is going to look a little bit different. Again, the emphasis needs to be on faithfulness not perfection, creativity and playfulness, not uniformity.

God meets us where we are. And even the smallest acts do important work. The single mom who quickly blesses her kids with the sign of the cross before she lets them out at school is creating a domestic Church just as much as the homeschooling mother of large family who sews her kid’s Juan Diego costume for The Feast of All Saints. Or, the single professional who hands out Care Kits to homeless people on her commute is doing it still differently. They’re each trying to repair the world in their own way, to insert their own lives, their own stories, into the story of the Gospel. To live their baptism.

Look at the Catholic parish model for inspiration. All Roman Catholic churches pray the same prayers, have the same Sacraments, and hear the same readings every day, and yet each is radically different. The universal Church is a monolith, but it’s an extremely diverse monolith. There are fundamental principles, and Christ is the measure, but those principles are instantiated in radically different ways, and that is as it should be, because goodness is infinite and varied.

This past December 23rd I went to my sister Mia’s house with my kids, my parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, and sang carols and hymns in her living room. It was the high point of the Christmas season, for me, a much more prayerful experience than the long and overcrowded Mass on Christmas Eve, or the frenzied exchange of presents on Christmas Day. I encountered God there, in the voices, and the lyrics, and the children and the cats roaming in and out as we sang, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “Give Me Jesus.”

These examples I have given are only some among many. There may not be a model for what you want to do. You may have to create one.

But people need to experience the domestic Church, to get ideas, to try making and praying with candles, or going on pilgrimage or celebrating a saint’s day, or chanting night prayer. And it helps to read up a little bit first, to make the experience more meaningful or to get ideas. Hence, my book. Hence, a field guide. But I say this with the caveat that there will be spilt water and broken dishes and days when you’re just not feeling anything but doubt.

Karen Armstrong says that, “Religion is a form of practical knowledge like swimming.” You can talk about it all day long, but at some point, you just have to jump in. And the way I swim involves wet hair and runny mascara.

We need to re-discover community, and we need to know that life lived in relationship is not about perfection but about faithfulness.

If you’re blessing your house with children, expect spilt water and dripped candle wax, and people bumping into each other, and forgotten verses, and mixed up words, and disagreements and silliness, and members of the household who would rather not do it at all. Because we are not actors or Instagram feeds, and our lives in Christ are not performances, or filtered photos. They are real and messy and imperfect and redeemed. But the point is just to join in and keep doing it. Christ came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Jesus tells us that Heaven is like a family. He says, “In my father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you that you also may be where I am.” At the heart of who God is Trinity, is community, is family, and we have a foretaste of heaven now in loving homes.

We cannot let our own inadequacy stop us from even setting foot on the path. These practices are here to bless me, to form me, to retain me, not to shame me into surrender. Mercy does not mean permissiveness, it does not mean that my husband and I should scream at each other on the street. But it does means that God retains us, even if we do.

After the Resurrection Jesus appears to the apostles who are hiding, and He breathes on them, it’s so bodily, and weird, he breathes on them, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit and says, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:19-31). He doesn’t say whose sins you retain are unforgiven. He says they are retained. They are kept. They are held onto.

At its best, the faith is like a family, which holds onto us, not to enable us, but to pray for and with us for as long as it takes for God’s love to get through. The apostles don’t throw out “doubting Thomas,” they hold onto him, they retain him, until he can put his hand in Jesus’s side and say, “My Lord and My God.”

Featured Image: Herrad of Landsberg, The Golden Calf, c. 1180; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Anna Keating

Anna Keating is the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to The Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life and the Catholic chaplain at Colorado College. She co-owns and lives above Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio.

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